Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lost in Translation

“But to do this he [the mute, invalid M. Nortier] must have spoken?”
“He has done better than that – he has made himself understood.”

-Exchange between M. deVillefort and the Count of Monte Cristo

One of the most difficult things I’ve found as a member of the military is translating what we do, and what we experience, into a form that our civilian peers and supporters can understand. In many ways, we live in a world completely detached and separate from anyone not in the know, and inadvertently further isolate ourselves because of our cultural language and codes of behavior. This does not seem to outwardly bother many of my brethren, but for me, as someone who clings to the concept of the “citizen soldier” (perhaps an anachronism at this point in history) it provides endless contemplation.

The element I now appreciate most about my college experience was my continuous interaction with an incredibly diverse group of individuals. This was most manifest in my fraternity, where aspiring doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, journalists, actors and musicians gathered on a nightly basis to break bread, get into heated arguments, then head upstairs for a friendly game of beer pong or caps (don’t tell IFC!). From this I was exposed to a world of endless possibilities, and one that opened my eyes to the interests that held other people apart from my single-minded pursuit of the military. It gave me an appreciation for the breadth of talent this great nation of ours has on tap.

Yet even amidst this multitude of future professions, I, and eventually my brother, stood out. It was rare at Northwestern to see our type, and as with anything unique to the human experience, people were intrigued. We were the first ROTC guys within our house’s walls in nearly a decade. I remember my first long conversations during the initial rush stages being about why I chose this route, what the future held, what my obligations were. These inquiries continued for the next four years. For someone who had grown up with an inherent understanding of a military future, and obsessed with anything to do with military history, this seemed odd to me.

Slowly I came to realize that what I took to be normal interests were anything but. And the misconceptions surrounding the choice were vast. I was and continue to be intrigued by the gulf between the protectors and protected, figuring out ways to coherently communicate what this culture contains.

Yet for all my professed interest in the military arts, and the undoubted truth that all of my friends and acquaintances would upon asking say I am a military man in body and soul, my own personal view of what I do is much different. The best metaphor I can muster is to say I feel as if I am a deeply embedded journalist. Except that the reporting is not to tell a story to the wider world, but rather to make sense of my experiences to myself and provide a visible window for those not privy to what goes on behind it.

Remarkably, the depth of mistranslation extends well beyond citizens with no ties to the military. This separation of worlds extends even to those civilians, particularly spouses and significant others, who are privy to our daily goings on. This was made evident to me last weekend as I tried to explain a flight I had gone on that morning to the wife of a fellow aviator who I have known since my flight school days.

It went something like this: That morning, I had taken part in an Air Power Demo over the USS Nimitz for the friends and family day cruise that the carrier (also our all too frequent home) was hosting. We flew from Lemoore down to the waters off of San Diego, did our little airshow, and returned back to the Central Valley.
The twist was that instead of a beautiful day with which to wow the crowd of thousands, we had terrible weather with incredibly low ceilings, casting the entire program into virtual chaos. In the end this was for the most part transparent to the crowd below, as we made the required adjustments. But my intention was to relate this adventure to her.

I began by talking about IFR descents, to 2,000 foot overcasts. How our pattern required 3,000 of clear air. I was losing her. I tried to tell her how as soon as we streaked by the ship at 500 knots and my lead broke, he suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared into the clouds, leaving me gasping in shock (trying to do the whole hand thing to demonstrate). An uneasy smile, and simple nod. She was trying, really trying to empathize and understand. It just wasn’t happening. Needless to say, my inability to vocalize what happened effectively brought this line of conversation to an abrupt halt.

I was reflecting upon this on the drive home. Mere hours earlier, I had been hyped up on adrenaline trying to keep track of all the airplanes beneath the low undercast, zooming around a ship with more flashbulbs going off than I had ever seen in my entire life, trying not to let my nerves get to me as I simultaneously tried to push my refueling probe into a bouncing metal basket mere feet in front of me with a slow E-2 trundling less than a mile in front of us as a Hornet coming by at nearly the speed of sound for a “sneak pass” called his position just across the ship from us requiring an immediate spin by us so we wouldn’t collide. Whew. Then remembering the serenity of the transit over where all of southern California and a large portion of the visible Pacific was covered by a fluffy white blanket as my lead little more than a mile away was sending contrails off his jet in mesmerizing streams of vapor. I’m not even sure I would have truly understood this even as a flight school student a few years ago. How was I going to tell those that were curious how my day was?

And so the things we find exhilarating and marvelous and terrifying get stuck in our throats as meaningless mumbles when we try to express what we believe to be seminal events in our lives. Most of the time, a “good” or “fine” suffices when untranslatable moments occur. (that being said, I heard the best description of a night carrier landing the other day: “You want to know what a night trap is like? Walk outside with a friend on the darkest night you can, blindfold yourself, then have your buddy kick you repeatedly in the balls.” Nailed it!)

But there are also those elements that are beyond memorable moments.

One of the more senior officers in the squadron lives about a block North of me, and almost every day I come home from work, I see him outside with his kids. He was the former football player who married the high school cheerleader, then joined the Navy in a fit of occupational uncertainty. We wave as neighbors and colleagues do in cities across America.

Yet that scene of the father playing basketball and throwing balsa airplanes with his little son, shepherding his blond daughter around the driveway teetering on her bicycle, normal to most observers, is filled with something so much more. It is the father squeezing every last moment of time with his beloved offspring before he has to leave again. This time it was two weeks between month-long detachments. The next time it will be ten days. Then a few more weeks home, and then six months away, literally to the other side of the world. After two years of similar workups and back to back deployments. The mother and wife bravely sees her love off, knowing he will be back, understanding why he must go, but deeply pained nonetheless. She too grasps at the fleeting time that all too quickly disappears.

How does one capture that in an understandable way to a society that sees a weekend apart from someone as ruinous? How do you relate that you will have missed your two best friends wedding’s, those you’ve looked forward to since high school and college, because a war is going on? How do you communicate the sense of detached acceptance when the vacation with your whole extended family (many of whom you haven’t seen in six to eight years) you’ve planned for months becomes an impossibility due to a command requirement to be tethered near the base prior to embarking on a combat cruise?

This is not a call for sympathy. All of these individuals made choices they stand by. It is instead the exposition of the realities that encompass the cultural divide that is increasingly widening between our military and our civilian world. A gap, that if left to widen, will invariably lead to a mismatch in priorities between two symbiotic elements of our society.

My mom has a picture of some of our Air Wings airplanes flying over the Nimitz on her desktop at her desk in the front office of my old high school. She gets a lot of comments and questions from passerby’s, and at times has referred them to one story of mine in particular when they inquire what the photo is all about. She tells what one woman told her while reading it:
I was just sitting there, when all of a sudden I heard a shout from the woman who I had sent the story to.

‘Carrie! How could you ever let your son do that? I would NEVER let my son do that; its so dangerous!!!’

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes, and tried to explain, ‘Well, they get a lot of training, and they have lots of good people making sure they get down okay.’
She still couldn’t believe it.

Thus, even after seven years of near round the clock reporting, there remains a lack of understanding between those on the front lines and those in the embrace of Lady Liberty. Especially in a democratic society where volunteers fill our armed forces and are directed by civilian policymakers, it is essential our cultures are communicating, and perhaps even more important, understanding the experiences of the other. Easily said, but the “how” in finding that translation still remains.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mr. Lincoln

“I wonder where he is looking…?” he thought as he himself stood looking across the Mall. What lay before him was the chill of a bright, cloudless afternoon, shadows long even though it was but two hours past noon. A mid-January day with the breath of Spring.

He stood on his tiptoes, trying to center himself under the massive chair, between the legs of the marble President. The Reflecting Pool, fountains of the Second World War, Washington Monument, Capitol, all in succession. Barren trees scattered on each side and a smattering of pre-inaugural tourists enjoying the spectacle. His eyes straining in the attempt to emulate the perspective of the figure towering above him, gazing off into the unknown.

The answer was not forthcoming. “I wonder if he is looking into the future, or the past maybe?” The solemn yet determined look that marked the long face gave no clue. An enigma, but a guiding light just the same. “What would he do in this crisis?”

It had been inevitable that the young man would end up walking those steps, silently stunned in that sacred cavern charged with the ever watchful vigilance of our Nation’s Capitol. The moments, and even days, leading up to this arrival were all tinged with this unavoidable rendezvous.

The journey took him from one coast to the other, flying over the marvels of human achievement and natural wonders, the latter putting the former to shame in sheer expansive magnitude. The desolation of the Sierras and vastness of Death Valley, over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, across the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. From 32,000 feet, the cut of red earth in the panoramic view from a bubbled cockpit taking his breath away and silence seeming the only appropriate response. Making their way across Texas, with windfarms on one side, and oil derricks on the other, the landscape slowly changing from the rugged brown of the West to the green of the East. The Lands of Manifest Destiny giving way to those forged by Patriots and Revolutionaries. Taking off from Houston as the sun set, casting brilliant hues that slowly faded into a purpling, then black darkness. The lights of Memphis, Nashville, Durham and finally Norfolk marking the path of their aircraft through the night and to the completion of their expedition.

Then the drive through Virginia up to DC through the interstate tunneled in the midst of an endless forest. Paying respects to the First President, then the Greatest Generation, but always with the columned temple in the corner of his eye and back of his mind.
The circuit was not a new one, but one that never ceased to inspire awe. In the past, done at night with companionship, and at times alone in contemplation. But always ending at the same place.

Some things take your breath away. Some moments leave you bereft of thought, consumed only with the weight of the present. He was in a rush, even as a tourist with this sole purpose, but after reading only the last paragraph of the words carved in marble on the right side, he stopped himself, took a deep breath, and rooted himself in the middle of the cavern.

The Second Inaugural loomed overhead, chiseled expansively across his vision, and the world’s motion and noises stopped. He read.

“AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

When he was done, and stood there for what seemed like minutes, he found that his mouth was hanging agape, tears running down his cheek. This surprised him, and somewhat embarrassedly and quickly wiped away the evidence. But even more was the great peace within his soul. The understanding that whatever we face, worse has been confronted by generations prior, and that there are Great Men who appear at the beckoning of Providence in moments when we need them most.

So he looked to the author, and tried to see what he saw, appreciating why past Americans had sojourned to that spot seeking solace and advice. No answer to his question came, as of course was the inescapable truth of facing a stone. No answer, that is, but the abiding feeling that the resolution of the choices we have to make are of our own volition, and individual judgment the true exercise of responsible power.

And thus the pilgrimage ended, to be undoubtedly repeated, but presently fulfilled.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


I sometimes wonder what the Forefathers would have thought of this twenty-first century incarnation of America. How far we’ve come, how much we have stayed the same, how much we have left to do.

As we approach yet another peaceful transition to a new President and his attendant administration, which we so naturally take for granted, I can’t help but reflect on how often and how close it all came to collapse. How precarious it still is. And how each generation of Americans had a chance to see their country spiral into the dustbin of history, give into the impulses of security at the hands of faction and self-interest. Yet here we stand, as divided, and united, as ever.

Our first President chose to leave office after eight years, establishing an unwritten precedent of two terms in office. He could have stayed on longer. He could have made himself dictator for life, or return America to a nation that followed in the path of every other government at the time and revert to monarchy. John Adams, his Vice President and undeniably ardent supporter of democracy, even for a time wanted the President to be referred to as “His Majesty, the President.”

Washington is regarded by many as the best President we have ever had. We all say this, but why? Do we truly understand the significance of his abdication of power? I’ve been reading the 46 Laws of Power, and the lengths and strategies people go to in order to obtain this elusive, yet seductive and addicting aspiration. The ability to influence and manipulate those around us with insinuation, deception, feints. Yet here stood a man, offered lifetime power, who recognized the futility of short-term individual ambition for the good of not only his generation, but those that followed. Fathom that for an instant. The ability to let it all go, and in doing so, gain a lasting fame and influence that resonates far beyond any other political leader. And planting a psychological seed that has blossomed into the rolling over of authority we are frequent witness to.

John Adams was then elected with 71 out of more than 200 electoral ballots cast. Less than forty percent support. He in turn, after being defeated for re-election by his political adversary, yet close friend Thomas Jefferson in one of the most bitter elections in American history (including charges of infidelity, secret children, outrageous slanders put forth by both parties that make our elections look civilized by comparison), handed over the reins of power without a fight. Jefferson received little more than 33 percent of the ballots cast, and only won after the 36th round of voting in the House of Representatives. Democracy in action. Yet for the first time in world history, political power had changed hands from one ideology to another without bloody conflict.

And far from setting a precedent, other now liberalized nations took generations more to realize the benefit of peaceful transition. The French Revolution that proclaimed Fraternity, Liberty and Equality through the guillotine was replaced less than a decade after the Bourbon removal by the scourge of Europe, the Emperor Bonaparte. Our brethrens in revolution spent most of the nineteenth century bloodily waffling between Empire and Monarchy. Even in the midst of a Civil War, we had an election, and the rightful victor remained.

I wonder what they would say to the splendor of the central parts of our Capital. A former swamp bought for a pittance lined with Classically-inspired marble structures, spires reaching high into the sky, cherry blossoms bursting forth every spring. And the motorcades – how different to be surrounded by armed men in black suits than to greet neighbors knocking on the unfinished White House doors as Jefferson did.

Though we live in a time of national plenty, we still face the same dilemmas, and the same historical foibles of human nature. What foreign entanglements to align ourselves with, regional interests in constant competition, political manipulations and transformations. A brutal and merciless press proclaiming the evils of the current administration, publicizing up every sordid detail and twisting every public pronouncement. Blowhard Senators wasting time and money, power hungry staffers salivating at the downfall of a once rising superior. These things have never, nor will they ever, be absent in the field of human political interaction.

And at the very top, the loneliness of command. The fate of the world, literally, laid upon your shoulders. Across generations and party ideologies, there is undoubtedly a bond that these leaders all share, and though their solutions often differ drastically, they alone bear the burden, together. One of the more remarkable photos I had during college was of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton all together. Some villains, some incompetents, some transformational, some charmers, but all men charged, for a time, with upholding the tenants of American democracy and the perpetuation of the experiment forcefully designed by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.

It is sometimes good to look at where we have come from to see where we are going. Our roots and our evolution from them define the national culture. I think our Founding Fathers would be proud to see what we have accomplished, but fight dearly for what they believed in, aligning against each other with every ounce of their being as they did previously. And from that cacophony of infuriating chaos ensure the continuation of domestic Tranquility, promote the General welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity.